That Magic Smile


Margaret could feel her face getting red as the math teacher wrote the grades on the blackboard. Twenty scores had already been posted and hers was still lower. He kept on writing—forty-one, thirty-nine, and thirty-eight.

No one knew that she was the one who had a score of thirty-nine, but to be next to last was embarrassing just the same. Margaret closed her eyes and wished she were far away.

Just then the bell rang and class was over. Margaret gathered up her books and started home. But instead of going straight home to her house she stopped by Mr. Tucker’s yard where he was carefully turning over the garden with a shovel.

“Well, if it isn’t Meg!” he called. Just those few words from Mr. Tucker made Margaret feel better.

“Hi, Mr. Tucker! It’s such a nice spring day that I knew you’d be out here.”

“You know me pretty well, don’t you? Put your books down and visit awhile.”

Margaret watched the dry brown earth become a rich black as the shovelfuls were turned over.

“How was school today?” Mr. Tucker asked as he wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief.

“All right, I guess. Anyway, it’s almost over for the year.”

“How are you doing in English?”

“Good,” Margaret answered.

“And you’re still doing well in science and art?”

“Yes.”

“Then I guess the long face is for math.”

“That’s right,” Margaret answered, disgustedly. “As a matter of fact my score was next to the lowest in class today.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Tucker said, stopping his work for a few minutes to talk about Margaret’s problem.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Numbers just don’t make much sense to me. I’m afraid I’ll never understand them.”

“Well, now, I know you pretty well, Meg,” Mr. Tucker told her. “You’ve always done well in school. Most things seem to come easy for you, and so I know you’re going to be able to lick your problem with math.”

Margaret watched the soil as Mr. Tucker went back to turning it over. “You’ve come across something that isn’t easy, Meg,” he continued. “But now you’ve found a challenge, it can be pretty exciting to meet it head-on and prove you can master it.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Meg said. “Instead, I’ve just become upset until I sometimes feel as though I just hate it, especially since I’ll probably have to go to summer school if my grades don’t get any better.”

“Would that be so bad, summer school I mean?” asked Mr. Tucker. “Seems to me that might be a pretty good place to put in some hours. We didn’t have anything like that when I was a boy.”

“Well,” Meg replied. “Summer school is great if you can take the things you want. I guess the trouble is that I don’t like math any time of the year.”

“Math’s important, Meg.”

“I know. That’s what Mom says, but I guess I haven’t learned to like it yet.”

Mr. Tucker turned the last of the dry, brittle earth into crumbly black soil. “There, now I can get to planting.” He wore a twinkly kind of smile that Margaret had often seen, but only when he was working in the garden. She’d wondered about that certain smile but had never found a good answer for it.

The next week school ended and Margaret had only one week of vacation before summer school. Every day she walked down to watch Mr. Tucker weed and water his tomatoes and corn and peas. She watched his gray head bent over a tomato plant, searching for new weeds. And she wondered why he bothered with such a little garden.

“It’s not much of a garden this year,” Mr. Tucker admitted, reading her thoughts one day. “I used to plant this whole backyard.”

“Why do you work so hard anyway?” Margaret asked. “You usually give most of the vegetables away.”

Mr. Tucker had that same twinkly smile on his face as he answered. “It’s nice to be needed. And some folks depend on my vegetables, just like I’m depending on you to learn to like math.”

“I’ll try,” Margaret promised. And math lesson by math lesson the first week slowly passed. Summer school wasn’t half as unpleasant as she had anticipated.

She studied hard but on the first test she only scored fifty-eight.

“I’m afraid I can’t make a better grade,” Margaret told Mr. Tucker, showing him her red-checked paper.

“Yes you can!”

“I tried so hard. And look!”

“But you’ve only been going a week,” Mr. Tucker reminded her. “You’ll probably score in the sixties next week.”

And so before each test during the summer Margaret worked and studied a little harder. Slowly her scores began getting better and Mr. Tucker’s tomatoes grew bigger and riper.

“The day my first tomato is ready to pick you’ll get a hundred on your math,” he predicted.

Margaret laughed. “I’m working at it,” she said.

“And working isn’t so bad, is it? Still hate math?”

“Only a little,” Margaret answered, and the answer surprised even her.

“That’s my Meg!”

The next Monday when the math teacher wrote the scores on the board, there was only one hundred—Margaret’s. She had worked very hard all summer and was so pleased with the results that she smiled all the way to Mr. Tucker’s.

“Guess what?” she shouted.

“You got a hundred,” Mr. Tucker said matter-of-factly.

“How did you know?”

Mr Tucker held up a bright red tomato. “Easy,” he said, “my first tomato is ripe.” Then they both laughed.

“Here, this one is yours,” he said. “It’ll make a great sandwich for lunch.”

Margaret noticed his twinkly smile again as he put the tomato in her hands. Now she understood about the smile and without even a mirror, she knew she wore the very same kind of smile. Suddenly she realized that the “something” that Mr. Tucker was smiling about was the feeling that comes when a person has a feeling of accomplishment.

“Thank you,” she said, “and if this tomato tastes as good as the feeling of finally earning a hundred in math, it’ll be a great sandwich. You know,” Margaret added, “it’s almost like magic what a little work can do.”

Mr. Tucker nodded in agreement. “There’s not really much magic in this old world,” he said. “But it’s a great feeling when you’re a part of making something almost magical happen.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Barbara McLintock